When Beaverton defense attorney Max Wall launched a last-minute bid to be Washington County's top prosecutor earlier this year, speculation ran rampant.
Boosted by nearly $700,000 from a national committee, Wall looked like he might be the latest reform-minded candidate for district attorney to topple an opponent more aligned with the status quo: Deputy District Attorney Kevin Barton.
And since the person steering that money had connections to liberal billionaire George Soros, it seemed Wall might be benefiting from Soros' largesse — just like other DA candidates around the country. Wall's campaign denied Soros was the money man, but didn't offer any details.
Now, two months after Wall badly lost the most expensive district attorney race in state history, the picture's growing clearer. New filings show the outside money came from a relatively obscure "dark money" group with ties to a Facebook co-founder and several prominent criminal justice reform advocates.
In April, a nonprofit called the Accountable Justice Action Fund donated $2 million to the Law & Justice PAC, a committee steered by Washington, D.C.-based strategist Whitney Tymas. The PAC in turn donated $680,000 to an Oregon committee, also run by Tymas, that ensured both the airwaves and Washington County mailboxes were crammed with campaign ads for Wall.
AJAF, as it's known, is a new player in the national push to use district attorney races as a springboard for criminal justice reform. Its existence was announced in a May 16 blog post by the Open Philanthropy Project, a charitable foundation bankrolled with the fortune of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna.
“We have recently decided to support the creation of a separate vehicle — the Accountable Justice Action Fund — to make it easier for donors interested in criminal justice reform to make donations to a pool of funds…” the post said, inviting prospective donors to send inquiries via email.
Records show the AJAF was first registered as a nonprofit with the state of Delaware in October 2017. And thanks to a report filed with the IRS this week, it’s clear the fund donated $2 million to the Law & Justice PAC on April 9, roughly a week before the PAC’s first payments on Wall’s behalf.
That doesn’t provide much more insight on who actually paid for Max Wall’s campaign.
As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, the AJAF can keep its donors secret from the public. And while the Open Philanthropy Project chronicles most of the grants it disburses on its website, money flowing into and out of the AJAF is more opaque.
Asked about the fund’s involvement in the Washington County DA’s race, a representative from the Open Philanthropy Project referred OPB to a generic Gmail email address. But he did make one thing clear: Moskovitz's Facebook money hadn’t been involved.
“Cari Tuna, Dustin Moskovitz and the Open Philanthropy Project did not provide any funding for the Oregon election work; we are a minority of the overall funding to AJAF,” Alexander Berger said on behalf of the OPP.
A representative of the AJAF, Marisa Renee Lee, would not disclose donors to the fund, noting it’s not required to under federal law. But she did say that the fund didn’t make the call to spend $680,000 on Wall.
“Law & Justice [PAC], to which we had previously given a grant to invest in races where they saw opportunities, made an independent decision to invest in Oregon,” Lee said in an e-mail. “I can’t speak to their rationale for choosing Oregon, though it’s clear to all of us that there has been a lack of accountability in this office.”
As it has in similar contests around the country, the presence of national money became a major issue in the Washington County DA race. As Wall pushed support for stronger programs to keep defendants out of jail and prison, Barton focused on what he called “dirty money,” and suggested Wall was beholden to outside forces.
In the end, Barton’s strong support from local elected officials and law enforcement — along with big donations from well-heeled Oregonians Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, and Henry Swigert, whose family founded ESCO Corp., a Portland foundry — won out. Barton secured nearly 70 percent of the vote and will assume control of the Washington County DA’s office next year.
The AJAF, along with Soros, also had money in play in a June district attorney race in Clark County, Nevada. Its candidate lost in a bid to unseat the incumbent prosecutor.
While much about the fund isn’t clear, it does have deep connections in the criminal justice reform movement.
An April filing in Nevada shows the fund's director is Michael Kieschnick. He helped create the Real Justice PAC, founded to elect reform-minded prosecutors. The president of the AJAF is listed as Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, which calls itself "the nation's largest online racial justice organization." Its secretary is Tim Silard, president of the Rosenberg Foundation, which pushes criminal justice reform and other issues.
“We (myself and the board members) have done work around criminal justice reform for some time now,” said Lee, the AJAF representative. She added: “This isn’t the first time there’s been money in prosecutor races, just the first time that there’s been any money on the side of communities that are backing candidates who believe alternatives to incarceration are the smarter, better way to improve our criminal justice system.”